AAUP Files Brief in Antidiscrimination Case

By Sarah Mink

The AAUP authored and filed an amicus brief on December 14 in support of a lower court decision holding that Margaret DeWeese-Boyd, a professor of social work at a Christian college, is not a “minister” and thus was protected by Massachusetts antidiscrimination laws. DeWeese-Boyd had sued her employer, Gordon College, alleging that it violated the state’s discrimination law when it denied her a promotion to full professor because of her outspoken criticism of Gordon’s policies and practices regarding LGBTQ issues. Gordon College argued that, as a religiously affiliated institution, it was exempt from employment discrimination law because it claimed DeWeese-Boyd was a “minister” within the First Amendment’s “ministerial exception.”

The amicus brief, authored by AAUP general counsel Risa Lieberwitz, used the AAUP’s well-established principles and standards to provide guidance to the Massachusetts Supreme Court in applying the “ministerial exception” in the context of higher education institutions. It urged the court “to consider the distinctive nature of higher education as a relevant factor in interpreting the scope of the ministerial exception in religiously affiliated institutions. In contrast to the parochial or religious elementary or secondary school context, faculty in colleges and universities—including religiously based institutions like Gordon College—are provided with the academic freedom that is fundamental to higher education norms and practices. This context of higher education should be considered as an important factor to ensure that the ministerial exception is applied only to faculty who are required to perform specific religious functions that would meet the definition of a ‘minister.’”